Guest Spot: Why can’t Riverhead Town stop making excuses?

Town Board, Linda Hulse, Riverhead, Jodi Giglio, Sean Walter
(Credit: Tim Gannon file)

I used to weigh 107 pounds more than I do today. When I got my shoes shined, I had to take the guy’s word for it. I felt bad, I looked bad, I couldn’t do much and when you’re heavy like that you blame everything and everyone but yourself.  

“I’m big boned.”

“The scale’s not right.”

But it was my fault. I kept lying to myself. I took in many more calories than I used. So, one day, I decided to stop making excuses and do something about it.

I made a simple chart and I live by it each day. How many calories did I take in today? How many did I use? It’s tough sledding at times but if you live your life that way you get healthy. And the most important thing? Don’t lie; be honest about your calorie count. Now, I’m no Richard Simmons but I want to tell the Riverhead Town Board something. You need a calorie counter. It’s time for an intervention.

For months now, we taxpayers have been warned that next year’s town budget would be dire. We were told it would include mass layoffs and a double-digit tax increase. Yet, miraculously, at last week’s work session, the board announced the budget’s been balanced. How’d that happen? They did it the old-fashioned way — they fibbed about their calorie count.

You see, each year our Town Board members spend almost 10 percent more than they take in. We face a constant $4 million deficit. We once had a budget surplus; we squandered it away. Budget time is “weigh in” day. It’s when you look yourself in the eyes for what you really are. So, what does our board do last week when they’re about to step on the financial scale? They blame: “It’s the landfill’s fault.” They rationalize: “We’re fiscal conservatives.” They make up numbers: “New sales are gonna happen at EPCAL next month, you’ll see.”

But the numbers don’t add up; we have a weight problem.

So what should we do? Well, we can fudge the numbers. (Did someone say fudge?) We can pretend there’s money coming in that isn’t. We can point fingers, or we can tell the taxpayers a soothing story. Let me tell you from experience, that’s all excuse-making and, trust me, it doesn’t work; I’ve done it. It’s like buying bigger clothing or wearing black. It may make you feel better temporarily, it may get you through a tough re-election but it doesn’t tackle the problem, it doesn’t make you healthy.

Instead, real problems call for real solutions. Part of the answer lies in a further shrinking of the size of town government. The board will say it can’t happen. I say it can.

A few years ago we had a debate about the town dispatchers versus the county. Town dispatchers cost us a million a year — three percent on your taxes. Do we still think it’s worth holding onto the cost? We explored sharing services with Southampton and the rest of the East End. Was there any result? Does the new budget truly reorganize any town departments? Did we streamline who reports to whom? We have our own water authority. If we sold it to Suffolk for many millions of dollars, would you miss it? Have we fully explored the two questions no one wants to talk about: reassessment and having Riverhead become a new precinct of the Suffolk police? Are these good answers? Bad? They’re certainly worth exploring, yet I don’t get the sense the Town Board is looking at every option. I don’t feel they are including the community in the dialogue. It’s too much about puffs of white smoke and one-sided decisions. We haven’t brought citizens into the discussion. Will the public accept a modest tax increase instead of reducing services? Which town services would truly be missed if they were cut? How much government do we really need?

I suggest we face the music. I suggest we take the tough road. I suggest Riverhead get on a real diet and exercise plan. If I learned one thing on the diet road it’s when you start doing the right thing you feel better. The longest journey starts with the first step. Let’s stop lying to ourselves and lace up our sneakers.

Anthony Coates is an investment and public affairs consultant. He lives in Riverhead and ran for Town Board in 2013.